It may not be what you think.
By James Carville, with Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza
Simon & Schuster. 224 pages. $24.
By Ben Adler, June 2009 Issue
Is the youth vote a great investment in a party’s political future or a mirage not worth chasing? In the 2008 election, the media could not seem to get its story straight. For every cover in Time proclaiming 2008 the triumphant “Year of the Youth Vote,” there was a grizzled veteran on the op-ed pages or CNN to argue that the youth vote has always been the dog that never barks.
And, remarkably enough, the election did not settle the dispute. Youth turnout increased, but so did older voters’ turnout by almost as much, so the share of the electorate represented by voters under thirty years old went up only 1 percentage point. But young voters’ preference for Barack Obama by staggering margins was essential to his victory, especially in the primaries.
Now, no less a pundit than James Carville has stepped into the breach with his new book, 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation, an extended boast that demographic trends, particularly the partisan preferences of young people, will ensure an era of Democratic dominance.
“A Democratic majority is emerging,” Carville declares. “This majority will guarantee that the Democrats remain in power for the next forty years.”
Carville chose this seemingly arbitrary time span on the basis of his historically dubious assertion that American politics tends to go in cycles, with alternating spans of thirty-six or forty years of dominance. That proceeds from the fact that Republicans won most Presidential elections from 1896 to 1932, Democrats from 1932 to 1968, and Republicans since then.
There are many components to Carville’s thesis. He mentions the declining share of white male voters and the increasing share of unmarried voters and Latinos. On every major issue of the day, Carville declares the Democrats’ position both correct on the merits and popular with the public, with the Republicans being woefully out of touch. And he seems confident that recent headlines of Republican corruption and incompetence will reverberate through the 2044 election. But his number one reason for the coming Democratic domination is “the historically diverse, historically Democratic young people who will be the foundation for a lasting Democratic majority.”
Carville is, by his biography, an unlikely champion of younger voters. Made famous by his work on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, he is still a loyal Clintonista. The Clintons and their acolytes have been on the opposing side from the major youth advocates in the Democrats’ recent internecine wars. When Howard Dean excited young Democratic activists, the Clintons, like many party veterans, foresaw a landslide defeat in the general election at the hands of older voters. They attempted to derail Dean by drafting fellow Arkansan Wesley Clark to run. During Dean’s tenure as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he tied youth outreach to his fifty-state strategy for long-term party building. Carville, like other Clinton campaign veterans such as Rahm Emanuel, criticized the fifty-state strategy, seeing it as a waste of resources better spent on eking out a few extra wins in competitive congressional districts in 2006. In the runup to the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Clinton pollster Mark Penn was overheard by a reporter mocking Obama’s supporters for “look[ing] like Facebook.” Bill Clinton discouraged Iowa college students who grew up out of state from caucusing.
Then the Iowa caucuses happened. Obama turned the political paradigm on its head by getting young people to come out in greater numbers than overall voters. Fifty-seven percent of young Democrats caucused for Obama. Without their support, Obama’s narrow win in Iowa would never have happened. The Clintons and their minions made a prompt about-face: Hillary launched a youth bus tour in New Hampshire, and Carville soon went to work on this book, which he wrote with the assistance of Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, a young Democratic activist.
Nonetheless it is strange to see an acolyte of the Clintons, who assiduously made the argument that Obama could not win a general election because of his unpopularity with working-class whites and older voters, touting the certain future success of a Democratic nonwhite coalition. Carville triumphantly notes that blacks made up 13 percent of the electorate in 2008, versus 11 percent in 2004, and that 96 percent of blacks voted for Obama, without even acknowledging that voting for the first black President is an unusual circumstance. If Democrats simply assume that their level of support and turnout from African Americans will be that high for the next forty years, they may be in for a disappointment. After all, the percentage of blacks voting Democratic was lower for Al Gore and John Kerry.
Even stranger, though, is Carville’s assumption that Obama’s staggering level of support among the Millennial Generation will hold for years to come. While he is correct that partisan preferences are generally set at a young age, it is not clear that everyone who voted for Obama has already become a loyal Democrat. It is true that young people generally voted Democratic down the ballot, but only if they voted in down-ballot races. Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher noted in a memo after the election that 20 percent of voters under thirty-five did not vote for a House candidate in November. As Belcher concluded, “These younger and browner surge voters are, by and large, Obama’s right now, not necessarily the Democratic Party’s.”
To his credit, Carville acknowledges, albeit not until page 148 of his book, that people who voted Democratic while the memory of Republican failures was fresh will not necessarily do so for the next nine election cycles without some work on the Democrats’ part.
“Democrats have to make sure that youth’s identification with the Democratic Party remains stable throughout their lives,” Carville writes. “That means Democrats can’t just be the alternative to Brand R . . . We have to be a strong, appealing Brand D to solidify the gains we’ve made in this generation.”
And Carville even understands that merely having the correct positions, which he devotes many pages to proving that they do, will not suffice. “What [Obama] lacks, what we as a party lack, is not ideas but a hook for these ideas.”
Alas, Carville’s grand idea for Brand D is a bunch of mundane, vague, popular policy goals such as “far-reaching campaign finance reform,” “energy independence,” “fixing” Social Security (how or why, he does not say, since it’s not in danger), making education “a priority,” and making college more affordable. I suspect Carville also thinks Democrats should come out in favor of puppies and against cancer. (In fact, Obama mentioned finding “a cure for cancer in our time,” at his early events relating to health care.)
Rather than trumpeting the Democrats’ liberal roots, Carville proposes the sort of unexciting, technocratic campaign platform that losing Democrats from Michael Dukakis to John Kerry have employed.
What the Democrats must do is make the young cohort of Obama voters loyal to the ideology of liberalism, as their grandparents were to New Deal liberalism and their parents were to Reaganite conservatism. To do that, Democrats, starting with Obama, must frame their popular proposals, from regulating carbon emissions to guaranteeing universal health care, as part of an unabashedly liberal vision of government.
Obama has consistently framed his biggest proposals, such as health care reform, as common-sense solutions to current or impending fiscal problems. You might call that the conservative case for health care reform. One could certainly argue that is the politically shrewd approach. But this is quite different from articulating a new role for government in the manner of Roosevelt or Reagan.
A new New Deal would frame access to affordable health care as a right for all who live in a decent society, just as we currently accept, thanks to the creation of Medicare, that it is a right for the elderly. A generation that goes from worrying about health insurance to enjoying the security of universal health care could then adopt the conviction that government should weave a social safety net. And this net can be expanded to address future challenges—maybe, for example, with a federal program to guarantee housing for all Americans, or free college tuition.
Carville notes that in 2008 Republican turnout dropped and McCain underperformed among self-identified conservatives. That is all well and good, but what it speaks to is the failure of Republicans to be good conservatives, not the success of Democrats at making disaffected conservatives into liberals.
The way for Democrats to build a lasting liberal majority is to articulate to those young voters that the policies they support collectively amount to a liberal agenda, and that they should embrace the label, the intellectual tradition, and the touchstone programs of liberalism.
There is some gathering evidence that young people realize this, even if career Democratic operatives such as Carville are afraid to touch it. Pollster Scott Rasmussen recently asked the somewhat loaded, silly question, “Which is a better system—capitalism or socialism?” Though he may have wished to reaffirm capitalism by setting up the dreaded socialism as its opponent, Rasmussen found that “adults under thirty are essentially evenly divided: 37 percent prefer capitalism, 33 percent socialism, and 30 percent are undecided.” Most of those young people probably do not really believe in socialism, as in collective or governmental ownership of the means of production. What they believe in is regulation of capitalism and mitigation of its vicissitudes. In short, they believe in liberalism. If only someone were brave enough to tell them so.
Ben Adler, a journalist in Washington, D.C., is an Urban Leaders Fellow at Next American City. He covered the 2008 election with a focus on the youth vote for Politico. Previously he edited CampusProgress.org, a youth-oriented magazine at the Center for American Progress.